Conversations on gender

Gender is such a malleable concept.  And it can be difficult for people who are entrenched in the general understanding of gender to understand the variances.

I spoke with  my friend Sarah Dopp here some months ago, but I’m not sure I mentioned her website Genderfork, which explores androgyny and gender variance through artistic photography.

I was recently teaching a sex ed class for middle schoolers, and one of the boys was looking at two pictures of an effeminate man from the book Naked New York by Greg Friedler.  In the first picture the man is fully clothed, and the second one he is fully naked.  The boy was grappling with gender and sexual orientation, and confused by the difference between the two.

He said something along these lines: “I can see from this first picture that he is a transsexual, but then I’m confused by this second picture.  He’s clearly gay from the waist up, but then straight from the waist down.  Can you explain this to me?”

Happily, the explanation was much easier to explain than the boy’s erratic guess. (The pictured man was somewhat androgynous, and that we could make no guesses or assumptions about his sexual orientation.)

I have just started a session of my class for parents, and one of the topics that the parents said they wanted to be sure and cover was the difference between transgender and transsexual and how those two topics relate to the gay-straight continuum.

So I’ve been thinking about gender here and there over the past several months.

Then I ran across an article in the New York Times published today called Albanian Custom Fades –  Woman as Family Man.  In extremely patriarchal Albania, if the patriarch of the family died with no male heirs, a virgin woman in the family could take a vow of virginity, give up marriage, sex, and children, and become culturally a man.  Wow!

However, as women have gained rights in Albania, it is no longer problematic for a household to be without a patriarch, and so the custom has died out.  The women quoted in the article seemed basically happy with their lives as men, which they had both sworn to around age 20.  They felt they had more options, more freedom when they were young women living as men, and they had more respect now that they are old women living as men.  One woman said she might not have made the choice she did if women had had more options when she was young.

The article is sure to state that this tradition had nothing to do with being a lesbian.   But I wonder what it has to do with gender.  How much of young, virgin, Albanian women changing genders was based in need of the family, and how much was based in gender identity?  In any event, the Times article is highly interesting and has some great pictures.  It is well worth a read.

(Oh, and we’ll be talking about gender and homosexuality in the third parent class, by the way.)

About Karen Rayne

Dr. Karen Rayne has been supporting parents and families since 2007 when she received her PhD in Educational Psychology. A specialist in child wellbeing, Dr. Rayne has spent much of her career supporting parents, teachers, and other adults who care for children and teenagers.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for the link to the article about the sworn virgins of Albania. This is fascinating and a great example of how culture plays such an enormous role in our concept of gender. The fact that these women, simply by swearing to remain virgins, were completely accepted into the world of men is extraordinary. I had heard of “gender bending” practices among native peoples, but not in Europe.

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